When former US President Donald Trump was elected in November 2016, his election was seen by many as a win for Europe’s far-right populists. Trump’s ascendance to the White House was proof that Western liberal democracies could backslide into illiberalism. But as Trump’s four years in office came to a close with the electoral victory of current US President Joe Biden, the status of liberal democratic norms seemed to be returning to that of a pre-Trump era.
It was a relief for Europe’s liberal politicians. “Trump’s defeat can be the beginning of the end of the triumph of far-right populisms also in Europe,” tweeted Donald Tusk, former president of the European Council.
But on January 6, the breath of relief that Biden’s electoral success had brought was sharply cut short. The world watched as Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol, a building that had not been breached since 1814—over two hundred years ago.
The shock caused by the breach of the Capitol was not limited to the American political sphere. As Republicans and Democrats denounced the insurrection, another group of prominent politicians was beginning to distance itself from Wednesday’s violence: the European far-right. From Geert Wilders of the Dutch Freedom Party to Matteo Salvini of Italy’s Lega Nord, Europe’s far-right populists clearly felt obliged to cut ties with the American populist with whom they had aligned just months before. Marine Le Pen—the leader of France’s far-right party, Rassemblement National (RN)—expressed shock at the images of violence, and insisted that Trump condemn it.
Despite these denouncements from Western European far-right politicians, radio silence emanated from Central and Eastern Europe’s far-right. Polish President Andrzej Duda claimed that the insurrection is an “internal affair,” while a member of Hungary’s ruling party continued to support Trump’s claims of Biden’s illegitimate victory.
Trump’s loss, the insurrection, and the European far-right’s mixed response raises several questions about the nature of the far-right—in Europe and the United States. Trump’s loss in the United States seemed to indicate a loss for the future of the European far-right, but as the mixed responses toward the insurrection might indicate, localized differences between Europe’s far-right factions mean that homogenizing Europe’s far-right may prove to be unhelpful in discerning each movement’s future success or defeat. At the same time, each far-right movement seems to be motivated primarily by a similar anxiety on both sides of the Atlantic: economic precariousness.
The Far Right In France
A key difference between the European and American far-right is that European populism is localized. Trump was able to reach from coast to coast in far-right populist appeal—despite varying state demographics and interests—but the same extent of influence cannot be assumed of individual European populist movements. Different countries have distinct political anxieties and economic concerns, meaning that a uniform approach to understanding all European populist movements can lead to misleading generalizations of how Europe’s various far-right movements might behave in the long-term.
One of Europe’s oldest far-right populist parties, France’s RN, exemplifies this unpredictability. The RN has been characterized by antisemitism and racist rhetoric, as well as pro-colonialism and anti-immigration views, since its inception in 1972. However, these dynamics have changed somewhat since its founder—Jean-Marie Le Pen—was ousted in 2011 from his leadership role in the party by his daughter, Marine. Under her leadership, the RN has undergone a dédiabolisation—French for de-demonization—which has softened her party’s rhetoric. As a result, her party’s public perception has changed, even while the RN preserves the racist, anti-immigration, and Islamophobic values that comprise its nationalist populist core.
This change brought the RN more into the mainstream, resulting in a rise in the RN’s popularity. In 2017—the year of the most recent French presidential election—that popularity indicated real possibility that the RN might succeed in winning the office of the presidency. Though the RN lost in 2017 to current President Emmanuel Macron, it has since become a fiercer competitor in light of Macron’s declining popularity. According to a Politico 2022 voter intentions poll, Marine has been out-polling Macron since last fall.
But France’s far-right realities do not represent all of Europe’s. In many European countries, the possibility of a far-right presidential victory is not viable, at least as of now. In the Netherlands, the Dutch Freedom Party (ID) still polls considerably below the current party in power—People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD). In Germany, the Alternative for Germany Party polls below both the German Greens and the Christian Democratic Union. Spain’s Vox also has a ways to go before eyeing electoral victory.
Making Political Hay Out Of Economic Anxieties
This disparity in success between France’s RN and many other Western European countries’ populist movements is partly a product of time. Many populist movements have not existed in their respective countries’ political spheres for long enough to have rooted a significant presence in it. This is the case with parties like Alternative for Germany and Spain’s Vox, which were respectively founded in 2012 and 2013.
Another—and likely more important—contributing factor lies in whether the far-right can offer viable political alternatives to the liberal policies that dominate Western democracies, and whether voters feel the need for such alternatives in the first place. In the Netherlands, the incumbent liberal Prime Minister Mark Rutte polls at 75 percent approval amongst Dutch voters, primarily because of his deft handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Rutte’s leadership is so well-received, in fact, that despite a scandal which exposed his government’s mismanagement of childcare subsidies, there is no apparent threat to his electability in the March 2021 general election. That existing popularity makes it difficult for Wilders’ far-right Dutch Freedom Party to push for dominance in election campaigns.
In France, however, anxieties about the economy and political life proliferate, creating a vacuum for the RN to fill. According to the French Institute of Public Opinion, Macron’s approval rating currently hangs at 41 percent, while current Prime Minister’s Jean Castex’s approval hangs even lower at 37 percent. Macron has presided against a seemingly never-ending backdrop of political turmoil: from working-class protests, to anti-police brutality protests inspired by the death of Adama Traoré, transportation strikes, social policy reform protests, and mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic.
More than any conscious attempt on Marine’s part or growing acceptance of her far-right movement, Macron’s political fumbles have created a well of political dissatisfaction that Marine has easily tapped into during her campaign for the upcoming 2022 election. Accusing Macron of lying to the people, Marine has effectively exploited his political weaknesses. She now leads in popularity in the lead-up to the next presidential election, with 26 percent of French voters currently showing support for her, as opposed to Macron’s 24 percent.
Other far-right parties across Europe have found even greater political success than France’s RN. Poland’s far-right Law and Justice Party (PiS) won both the presidency and the seat of prime minister in 2020, continuing forward with a parliamentary majority that had its roots in 2015. That election sent Poland lurching rightward toward illiberalism, which has since resulted in attempts to “re-Polonize” the Polish media and restrictions placed on the Polish judiciary.
PiS remains the most popular political party in Poland as of February 19, with the Polish Civic Coalition following it distantly from 10 percentage points away. To a certain extent, PiS’s policy initiatives have sustained the party: its work toward expanding social welfare programs has been met with widespread enthusiasm. According to Aleks Szczerbiak, professor of Politics and Contemporary European Studies at the University of Sussex, this support is in part due to a lack of viable welfare policy alternatives associated with PiS’s liberal-centrist opposition.
The tangible policy avenues to political favor that the PiS has forged may also be paving the way for the RN’s success in France. Marine’s welfare chauvinist stances seek to confine (not end) state social welfare benefits to French citizens, marking a leap away from her father Jean-Marie—who liked to brag that he adopted free-market ideologies before it became in-vogue to do so under Reaganomics and Thatcherism—and, in light of growing economic anxieties pervading different strata of French society,
Marine’s appeals to nationalist welfare policy seem to be working. Class uprisings like the gilet jaunes movement have become more common since 2018, underscoring the working and petty bourgeois discontents of French society. Contrasting itself with Macron, whose actions in social policies like pension reform have been met with outrage due to incoherence and potential instability on workers’ future retirement prospects, the RN presents itself as a real political alternative to the unpopular, out-of-touch Macron; the party may well be poised for political victory in 2022.
The Future of Europe’s Far Right
The RN’s growing popularity should not speak for the entire European far-right. After all, many far-right movements have yet to make any real dent in established democratic norms in their respective countries, much less occupy elected office. Several far-right movements have not been around for long enough to make an impact, and others struggle to distinguish their political and economic platforms from their liberal-centrist competitors.
But as the examples of France and Poland demonstrate, there is an undeniable economically-oriented undercurrent to the rise of their respective far-right movements. Far-right movements—of the ones which have seen successes in Europe thus far—seem to capitalize off of economic precariousness or uncertainty, an observation not exclusive to European countries: even in the United States, widespread economic precariousness has been observed by political scientists attempting to explain January’s insurrection. A number of the insurrectionists at the Capitol had a history of debt, bankruptcy, and general money problems—indicating a trend of economic uncertainty that might help explain potential motivations for political violence. What’s more, a study done by the Chicago Project on Security and Threats found that many of the insurrectionists were middle-class individuals with no obvious connections to far-right ideologies, demonstrating that the problem of far-right populism cannot simply be attributed to a difference in sociopolitical values.
All of this indicates that the roots of far-right populism run deeper than the nativist, racist, and nationalist rhetoric present at face-value. A much deeper anxiety surrounding the privileges of political and economic stability underlie the rise of far-right populism in modern liberal societies. Trump or no Trump, if liberal-centrist political platforms are unable to present attractive alternatives for whatever socioeconomic discontents are currently stirring electorates, European political climates may see more far-right populists rise.The image featured in this article is authorized for re-use under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 4.0 license and was originally taken by Elke Wetzig, whose work can be found here.